'1939: In the Shadow of War' re-creates a fateful year;
By Merle Rubin
Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor. Writing ''In Memory of W.B. Yeats'' shortly after the poet's death in January of 1939, W.H. Auden gave us two stanzas that seem forever to epitomize their time and place: In the nightmare of the dark All the dogs of Europe bark, And the living nations wait, Each sequestered in its hate; Intellectual disgrace Stares from every human face, And the seas of pity lie Locked and frozen in each eye. Countries to the east of Germany hoped Hitler would look westward for new conquests; countries to his west hoped he would continue eastward instead. An estimated 500 Viennese Jews were committing suicide each month. In the columns of The Times (London), German Jewish women placed desperate advertisements for jobs as maids which would get them the special visas needed to enter Britain. ''1939: In the Shadow of War'' evokes the atmosphere of that fateful year, as its events were reported in the newspapers of the time. Robert Kee's unfailing tact as a writer in the documentary genre is as evident in this book as it was in his moving and uncommonly lucid ''Ireland: A Television History.'' His is a tact based not on glossing over unpleasantness or avoiding controversial issues, but on exploring a given problem with thoroughness and care. ''1939'' pieces together a large canvas from a mosaic of component parts. Although this approach involves the technique of collage, mingling news of wars and war's alarums with time-capsule advertisements for cigarettes and motorcars, Kee's account of that year remains a coherent narrative and does not fall apart into a mere kaleidoscope of impressions. Then, as now, many people preferred to ignore the events that would soon change their lives forever. Sensational murder trials shared the headlines with Hitler and Mussolini. Kee informs us that ''the news that Lady Mary Dunn had broken a hand while hunting in Ireland was recorded on the center page of The Times beside that of the Spanish Civil War.'' But the ostrichlike attitude of the ordinary newspaper reader was far exceeded by the behavior of Neville Chamberlain's government. Sir John Anderson, in charge of civilian defense, returned from an ill-timed skating holiday in Switzerland to deliver this priceless pronouncement: ''We are working on the assumption that there is a risk of war within a comparatively short time; but that does not mean that we expect war.'' Kee's aim is to re-create a sense of what it was like to live through the momentous events of that year: the fall of Republican Spain, Hitler's final dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain's continuing policy of appeasement, the plight of Jewish refugees from Germany unwanted by the rest of the world, the Nazi-Soviet pact, Hitler's invasion of Poland. Yet the momentous, Kee reminds us, is often overshadowed by the momentary. Events that hindsight recognizes as pivotal may not seem so at the time they are happening, as Kee observes of Hitler's assault on Prague: ''The Ides of March 1939 marked the beginning of the end of what . . . Auden six months later called 'a low, dishonest decade.' And yet of course even turning-points as brutal as this one do not seem particularly like turning-points when lived through from day to day. . . . But the event could be seen as a divide. Dozens of little bridges of continuity, carried plausibly enough by the reappearance of the morning newspaper, simply disguised the fact that it had been traversed.'' ''1939'' succeeds brilliantly in conveying the texture of daily life poised on the brink of an abyss unimagined even by the most cleareyed, hardheaded, and pessi-mistic. Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.
1939: In the Shadow of War, by Robert Kee. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 369 pp. $19.95.